1558 Olaus Magnus Medieval Scandinavian Life Nature Myths Occult Norway Sweden

1558 Olaus Magnus Medieval Scandinavian Life Nature Myths Occult Norway Sweden

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1558 Olaus Magnus Medieval Scandinavian Life Nature Myths Occult Norway Sweden:

[Early Printing - Antwerp - Plantin] [Early Illustrated Books] [History of Northern Europe] [Zoology - Northern Europe] [Fishing]
[Ethnography and Geography - Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Iceland] [Occult - Witchcraft]

Printed by Christopher Plantin, Antwerp, 1558.
Edited by Cornelius Graphaeus. First Edition Thus.

Text in Latin. Illustrated with 136 small woodcuts in text.


MAGNUS'S MONUMENTAL WORK ON SWEDISH, NORWEGIAN, DANISH AND FINNISH HISTORY AND FOLKLORE was first published in Rome in 1555. This is the first edition of the abridged version of Olaus Magnus' famous and extremely influential work. This shorter version was prepared and edited by Cornelius de Schryver (latinized as Graphaeus), the city clerk of Antwerp. As Plantin explains in his dedication to Viglius, a "learned friend" had presented him with this shortened version of the Roman edition, which he judged to be of interest for publication.

The 135 CHARMING WOODCUTS by Arnold Nicolai, somewhat naive but very lively and inventive, vividly illustrate the way of life in medieval Northern Europe. "Arnold Nicolai made woodcut reduced copies of the Rome blocks for Christophe Plantin's edition of Cornelius de Schryver's abridgement of this text." (Mortimer/Harvard, Italian, 270). The illustrations depict mining and warfare, witches and sorcerers, people walking on snow in snow-shoes and riding deer-drawn sleighs, Scandinavian drinking traditions, hunting and fishing, seals, whales and sea-monsters, and much more! The woodcut on B3v illustrates the runic alphabet.

The illustrations are of considerable importance to the cultural history of the Nordic countries. Several woodcuts portray people on skis (or their early predecessors), including warfare scenes. Olaus Magnus's Historia is significant as "the first major work that looked at skiing as part of northern Europe's winter culture. [...] Although account of skiing had appeared among some Latin authors before that, Olaus Magnus was one of the first to have been an eyewitness to skiing in its many forms." (E. John B. Allen, Historical Dictionary of Skiing). Magnus describes a typical Scandinavian who "upon crooked stilts or long stakes fastened to the soles of his feet transports himself upon the snow in dales and mountains, in a dangerous, by winding and arbitrary motion, and he does it with a most perfect art..."

The work includes a brief account of Greenland and its pirates in a section entitled "De scorteis, seu coriariis nauibus piratarum Gruntlandiae".

Book VI deals with mining and metallurgy, books VII-XI with military subjects, and books XVII-XXII with natural history, including descriptions of North-European species of fish (with a very detailed discussion of Scandinavian fishing practices), birds and quadrupeds. Book XXII is specifically dedicated to sea-monsters and contains a number of very curious woodcuts.

Olaus Magnus' work (particularly its Book III "De Superstitiosa Cultura Daemonum Populorum Aquilonarium") is also famous as an important source on witchcraft, magic and various occult arts and popular superstitions in medieval Scandinavia. "In the Swedish (and to some extent Norwegian) tradition [the witches'] meeting place was called 'Blakulla', i.e. the blue (or black) hill. The name had already occurred in the fifteenth century, but an explicit connection with witches' sabbat is first made a century later. Olaus Magnus in his Historia de de gentibus septentrionalibus (1555) offers the information that at certain times of the year, The Nordic witches gather at Blakulla to try their arts and sorceries. Those who are late for this devilish meeting are punished cruelly. [...] The writings of Olaus Magnus were widely read in Europe, and they rendered the North the somewhat exaggerated reputation of being the homestead par preference of witches and wizards. Jean Bodin, in his De la Demonomanie des Sorciers remarks that 'there are more witches in Norway and Livonia and the other Northern regions, than there are in the rest of the world, as Olaus the Great says'." (B. Ankarloo, S. Clark and E. W. Monter, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Period of the Witch Trials, p.75)

Olaus Magnus (1490-1557), a Swedish ecclesiastic and writer, had in his youth travelled through the entire Scandinavia. During his stay at Rome the Lutheran Reformation got the upper hand in Sweden, and he never returned to his country. The triumph of the Reformation in his homeland, and his attachment to the Catholic church, caused Magnus to extend his stay abroad for good; he was accompanied by his brother, the archbishop of Uppsala, in Poland. They were both exiled, and Magnus' Swedish belongings were confiscated in 1530. Settling in Rome in 1537, he acted as his brother's secretary. At the death of the brother in 1544, Pope Paul III appointed him - as his brother's successor - an Archbishop; admittedly nothing more than a title, as Sweden was not Catholic anymore and Olaus was banned. In 1545, Pope Paul III sent him to the council of Trent where he attended meetings until 1549. He spent the remainder of his life at the monastery of St Brigitta in Rome, where he subsisted on a pension assigned him by the Pope.

Olaus Magnus is best remembered as the author of the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, a patriotic work of folklore and history which long remained for the rest of Europe the authority on Scandinavian matters. This text on dark winters, violent currents and beasts of the sea rightly amazed and fascinated the rest of Europe. It was translated into Italian (1565), German (1567), English (1658) and Dutch (1665), and not until 1909 into Swedish. Today, it is still a valuable repertory of much curious information in regard to Scandinavian customs, folklore, legends and monsters.

Bibliographic references:

Sabin 43833; Voet IV, nr. 1811; Alden, European Americana 558/24; BM STC Dutch and Flemish, 127; Grässe IV, 339; Brunet 3:1302; Ahlenius, Olaus Magnus, p. 126, no. 2

Physical description:

Octavo (textblock measures 161 mm x 95 mm). Bound in 19th-century full mottled calf, flat spine tooled and lettered in gilt.

Foliation: (8), 192 leaves (i.e. 400 pp.)
Signatures: a8 A-Z8 Aa8. Collated and COMPLETE!

Woodcut device on title-page and 135 small woodcut illustrations in text. Decorative woodcut initials.
Preliminaries include the Privilege (on verso of title-page), dedicatory epistle by Christopher Plantin, and the Table of Contents.


The Congregation of St. Maur at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, with the ownership inscription in 17th-century (?) hand "Bibliothicae S. Germani a Pratis/ Cong[regationis] S. Mauri" on title page. (The Congregation of St. Maur, also known as the Maurists, were a congregation of French Benedictines, established in 1621 and renowned for their high level of scholarship. The congregation and its members were called after Saint Maurus, a disciple of Saint Benedict credited with introducing the Benedictine rule and life into Gaul.)


Very Good to Near Fine antiquarian condition. Binding slightly rubbed. Front endpapers slightly pulled at top of hinge, but the hinge itself is intact and solid; binding tight. Early monastic possession note to title (see Provenance), Occasional light marginal soiling. An exceptionally bright and clean example.

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1558 Olaus Magnus Medieval Scandinavian Life Nature Myths Occult Norway Sweden:

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